Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Many years ago my husband Craig and I spent our summer vacation with our four kids, as well as Craig’s brother and his wife and their four kids, on a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Part of our trip was backpacking. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet, and with packs loaded with sleeping bags and freeze-dried food, we made our way up to a height of about 12,000 feet.
Imagine hiking for eight hours with eight children between the ages of six and thirteen!
Inevitably there was the child whose backpack was too heavy, so mommy or daddy had to carry it; the one who had a stomachache; another who kept saying “I’m so tired I just want to die.” Then we had the thirteen-year-old with her cell phone, who was utterly depressed – except when we’d enter the occasional zone where text messaging was possible! In those same zones, we had my brother-in-law, for whom this was a working vacation, with his cell phone going off with dozens of messages. When we finally reached our destination, four people had altitude sickness, one child had a bloody nose, and another tossed his cookies and then promptly fell asleep during supper.
It was quite an adventure! I may have shared this story with some of you before (although I think I erased many of the memories from my mind). I recently re-read my journal entries of this vacation to my family, amidst much laughter and fortunately, fond recollections.
Because in the end, everyone felt that the hike was worth it.
Breath-taking views of the Sierra peaks, crystal blue alpine lakes, the setting sun bathing the jagged rocks with light, and the sky filled with spectacular color. We could see for miles, and we had a view that was unlike any other. Being that high up gives you a whole new point of view.
That could be why Jesus took the disciples up to the top of the mountain in today’s scripture reading – to get a different view. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration pretty much the same way. All three gospels begin the story of the Transfiguration by linking it to the events that happened just before it – Matthew tells us six days before it. Just what had happened?
First, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah and then, second, Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his own death. Peter both got it right – Jesus is the Messiah – and got it wrong – Jesus is the Messiah that we want him to be. Maybe Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the mountaintop to give them a different point of view.
According to the dictionary, the verb “transfigure” means to radically change the appearance of something. To transfigure is to exalt or glorify, to bring into a larger context and importance.
Jesus is transformed – his clothes become a dazzling white. Matthew’s listeners would certainly have thought of Moses on Mount Sinai, and sure enough, Moses appears with Elijah talking with Jesus. A cloud, the symbol of God’s presence, descends over the disciples. God breaks in and announces “This is my son, the Beloved,” exactly what he said at Jesus’ baptism. But now he adds, “listen to him.”
Something unique and wonderful happened on that mountain that night, and we can’t really say what it was. But on this Transfiguration Sunday, we can at least reflect on the meaning of this event and understand how it’s really too important to remain unappreciated in the church.
Our belief as Christians is of Jesus as fully divine – as part of God – as the one who was resurrected from the dead and now reigns with God in all power and glory. But while he was here in the flesh, this fully divine Jesus was also fully human – subject to our human doubts, temptations and fears. It’s for the human side of Jesus that the Transfiguration was so important.
Jesus realizes that his Messiah-ship will mean suffering and death. So Jesus is needing some reassurance. He needs to know he’s doing the right thing, even though the world will reject and scorn him. He needs something to boost his spirit and bolster his will for the trial ahead. He needs to know he won’t be paying this terrible price in vain, that God will see him through.
The Transfiguration gives Jesus that reassurance. It clothes him in God’s light and shows him a piece of the glory coming from the cross. Maybe it gives the human Jesus courage and strength for what’s to come.
You and I know a bit of that feeling.
If you’ve ever had a profound experience of God in your life, you draw on that experience again and again as you need it, to bolster your faith. When you’re in the desert, you remember back to that oasis where the waters of living faith flowed freely. When you need God and God feels distant, you remember back to that time when God felt very near, and that’s what helps you believe that God will be near to you again.
We all need those occasional mountaintop experiences to sustain us when we enter our valleys of doubt and shadows of despair. That’s the natural rhythm of the spiritual life, and it’s as true for us in our day as it was for Jesus in his.
The Transfiguration was also important to the disciples, who had a hard time understanding Jesus as the Messiah. Like all people, they tended to judge by appearances, and Jesus didn’t look or act at all like the great military Messiah-Liberator Israel had been waiting for. They expected the Messiah to be like Caesar, only more powerful. They expected him to command an army of angels in battle. They thought the man they followed would be loved and revered throughout the land.
Instead, they found a humble man, a servant. He owned nothing but the robe he wore. He hung around with the lame and the sick, the prostitutes and the poor. He had enemies in every town, and enemies in high places. He looked and acted and lived nothing like the Messiah they’d been taught to expect. So the Transfiguration was important to the disciples, because they needed reassurance too. They’d given up everything to follow a Messiah who wasn’t the Messiah people wanted. Maybe the Transfiguration reassured the disciples that despite all appearances, they hadn’t made a mistake when they cast their lot with this carpenter’s son from Galilee.
Another way the Transfiguration is important is that it tells us something about the realities of daily living, and it’s contained in the last lines of this passage. After the disciples witnessed this marvelous Transfiguration, scripture says they came down from the mountain. They had to go back to work.
Do you know what that’s like? That’s like coming here to church and feeling the joy of worship, the inspiration of music and fellowship, being uplifted and renewed. You sense the Spirit of the living God in this place, and within your heart. You feel the peace and consolation of God’s almighty presence. And then you go out to your car and the battery’s dead. Or you get home from church, inspired to be a glorious Christian all week long, and you discover that the dishwasher you left running this morning has flooded the kitchen.
Sometimes it’s hard, when we get bogged down in the mundane matters of life, to remember our higher purpose and greater calling. Sometimes it’s hard, as we walk across the flat land of daily living, to remember that there are mountaintops of the spirit to climb, and great vistas yet to see.
We imagine we’re put here on this earth just to get the next project done at work, or get to the next meeting on time. We imagine our life’s purpose is to drive the kids to innumerable soccer games, or play practices, or get caught up on last week’s laundry.
But we know that’s not all there is to life. There’s also a higher purpose, which is our own transformation as Christians.
God calls us to grow and change. In the midst of our worldly obligations as spouses and parents, employees and homemakers, the Transfiguration reminds us that we’re also here to be children of God. We’re here to be transformed into the image of God in which we’re made. We’re here to imitate Christ and behold his majesty, to climb up to the mountaintop and see at its peak the larger context of our lives.
Finally, the Transfiguration is important to us for the message which was spoken on that holy mountain. “This is my son, the Beloved,” the voice said. “Listen to him!”
Listen to him, not because he’s a good teacher, or a miracle worker, or a nice man. Listen to him, because this is God’s son. Listen to him! said the voice. Take him seriously! Don’t pay lip service to him. Don’t write him off or explain him away. When he tells you that love is the path to peace, and weakness the path to strength, don’t write him off as naive and unrealistic. When he tells you to stop striving for the vain riches of this world and seek instead the riches of heaven, don’t write him off as quaint and other-worldly. When he tells you to love even the neediest of your neighbors as yourself, don’t dismiss him as a bleeding heart. “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
The Transfiguration was a marvelous and mystical event which no one but Christ can really explain, but it’s filled with meaning for us just the same. Even now, as we would-be disciples, we ascend the holy mountain with our Lord. We see the dazzling light and majesty. Do we look away, get distracted and miss the glory of the coming of our Lord? Or do we see the glory of his transfiguration, and the possibility of our own? And then, do we hear the voice? Listen: “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” Amen.